Eleanor Wachtel reflects on the life and legacy of Muriel Spark, on the centenary of her birth
Art and fascism, power and friendship have rarely been portrayed as economically as they are in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I think I've now read the novel three times: first, when I was a student, devouring Spark's early work; then when I was preparing to interview her, at her home in Tuscany almost 20 years ago, when she was 81; and finally, a couple of years ago when I featured it as part of my "Books on Film" series at TIFF in Toronto. Each time, I've found it witty, elegant and tantalizing — written with complexity and stylistic virtuosity.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is Muriel Spark's fifth novel, written in 1961, two years after her first big success, Memento Mori. But it was Jean Brodie that set Muriel Spark up for life (in terms of financial security). Not only was it a popular novel — the entire manuscript was published in a single issue of the New Yorker magazine — it also became a hit stage play, starring Vanessa Redgrave in London (1966) and then Zoe Caldwell on Broadway (1968) and, most famously, Maggie Smith, in the 1969 movie version.
As dramatist Jay Presson Allen observed (she adapted the book first for the stage and then for the screen), every actress associated with the role wins a prize — a Tony Award in New York or an Oscar in Hollywood.
After the initial, enormous success of Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark never lived in Britain again. She moved first to New York, then Rome and finally Tuscany, to a former rectory attached to a deconsecrated church just above the walled village of Oliveto. And that's where I went to see her in the summer of 1999.
Almost right up until her death in 2006 (age 88), Muriel Spark continued to produce "comic-metaphysical entertainment," as the New York Times put it, making up what's been described as "one of the most trenchant and accomplished bodies of literary work since the Second World War." A distinctive voice, darkly satirical. Not long ago, the Times (of London) named Muriel Spark among the "50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945," putting her in the #8 spot! Now the National Library of Scotland has mounted an exhibition of her life and work as part of the centenary celebrations. There's also a new memoir by Alan Taylor and Polygon is bringing all 22 of her novels back into print.
The character of Jean Brodie was inspired by a real teacher that Muriel Spark encountered at the James Gillespie's High School for Girls, which was the inspiration for the Marcia Blaine School. According to Spark's biographer (Martin Stannard), the teacher, Christine Kay, unlike Jean Brodie, reportedly possessed something of a moustache; but — more reminiscent of her fictional counterpart — she admired Mussolini, taught by "dazzling non-sequiturs," and once held up a photo of the pudgy Muriel to her class and declared: "You can see the sensitivity in that line of Muriel's arm."
Spark adored Christine Kay and told me that she was a very good teacher — intelligent, imaginative, dedicated to education. All her holidays were spent gathering material to show her "girls," who did indeed fantasize about her.
Perhaps even more significant, it was Miss Kay who told Muriel Spark "emphatically" (as she said to me) that she would be a writer. That she had "a mastery of the English language."
Here's my conversation with Muriel Spark.